HITLER’S GIRL – THE BRITISH ARISTOCRACY AND THE THIRD REICH

By Lauren Young

HarperCollins 2022

ISBN: 978 0 06 293673-8

RRP: $34.99 (PB)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson

 

Sadly for the reputation of a few well known Americans, a lack of understanding of the complexities of the British class system and its aristocracy, much less of its history, can lead to over confidence and flawed assessments. The current Duchess of Sussex is a most recent example that comes to mind. Another is Lauren Young, a Yale academic and the author of Hitler’s Girl, who thinks she has uncovered an alternative history of 1930s Britain that links it to contemporary authoritarian popularism in parts of Europe and the US.

There are many lessons to be learned from the 1930s. The literature of the time and of the war that followed is extensive. Diaries, documents both government and personal, researched history and memoirs have exhausted the record. That said, there is nothing wrong with a new look. If it works. But Young’s take on a cluster of individuals from among the British upper classes and their flirtation with fascism in the 1930s goes nowhere near proving her thesis. To argue that the British aristocracy in the late 1930s was in the grasp of right-wing ideologues who were set to take over Britain and govern in the style of Hitler, Mussolini or Franco in Spain is not sustainable. Yet, in Hitler’s Girl this is what Young posits.

There is a mountain of writing on the Mitford sisters – Jessica (Decca) became a communist, Nancy a satirical novelist sending up her aristocratic heritage, Unity who spent time in Germany following in the shadows of Hitler and Diana who married British fascist leader Oswald Mosley in 1936 Germany at the home of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels with Hitler guest of honour. Pamela Mitford became a rural devotee out of the public eye while the youngest Mitford, Deborah, married the younger son of the Duke of Devonshire only to eventually find herself married to his heir when his older brother was killed.

Lauren Young writes as if she has stumbled on a lost fortune of information about the British prior to the Second World War. Through the fascist connections of two Mitford sisters – Unity and Diana – Young discloses a trail leading to various members of the British establishment and eventually to Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and Adolf Hitler. None of this is new but Young believes she is onto a wider tangent. She discovers a secret anti-Semitic club – the Link – founded by Admiral Barry Domville in 1937 that included in its members such high ranking individuals as the Mitford’s father Lord Redesdale, and the Dukes of Westminster, Marlborough, Wellington, Buccleuch, Bedford and Hamilton. That Domville was later imprisoned for treason does not seem to affect her theory that this list of high flyers was close to taking power in Britain.

Another member of the Link is Archibald Ramsay who founded the Right Club and quoted from conspiratorial and anti-Semitic Protocols of The Elders of Zion. Again, there were figures from among the upper class who joined. And then there was the Cliveden set located “fewer than thirty miles from the halls of power at Westminster”. Reading Young’s account, it is as if Lady Astor and her narrow minded upper class friends are about to march on the Commons and take over. And then there is the Duke of Windsor – whom Young wrongly claims as the first cousin of the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. The Duke of Windsor was as close as the British aristocracy got to Adolf Hitler, but Edward VIII had abdicated by then and, short of collaborating with the Germans briefly in occupied France, had little impact on British affairs.

Winston Churchill may have been a close friend of the Prince of Wales but he was quick to dissociate himself from him as the Duke of Windsor after his abdication, especially after the Windsors’ visit to Berlin in 1937 and the outbreak of war. And where Young tries to suggest that Chamberlain was willing to bow before Hitler in the Munich agreement she fails to see that there was no drive in Britain to follow National Socialism – far from it. The fear of another war such as World War I gripped those who knew well its consequences less than two decades before. Appeasement was the order of the day – even for President Franklin D Roosevelt – until, for Britain, Chamberlain had his breaking point over Poland.

Young draws a long bow in trying to connect any sort of ruling class to a seizure of power in Great Britain. It is as if she has only just discovered that Britain, like all the West, had groups among the ruling class who supported fascism. However, while British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Mosley might have got the lads from the east end of London out onto the streets in violent demonstrations, they had not one MP at Westminster. What Young fails to do is connect these isolated groupings to anything close to seizing power. What’s more, she is completely muddled in her facts about who was what politically at the time.

“Pliant” (he was) Lord Halifax, was not, as Young claims, Foreign Secretary when he visited Berlin in November 1937 and Halifax’s visit was private not official. Young notes that Halifax told Churchill in advance of the visit which is an odd point to make since Neville Chamberlain was prime minister at the time and Churchill did not have a portfolio in government until 1939 when he became First Lord of the Admiralty. As for the actual Foreign Secretary in November 1937, Anthony Eden, he did not resign as Young asserts over the Munich Agreement of September 1938 but in February 1938 over Chamberlain’s appeasement of Benito Mussolini. Many of the relevant facts of European and British history for Young seem all too cursorily acquired, even missed, the complexities and subtleties also absent. This lack of context, in retelling Unity Mitford’s Nazi links, also shows in the book’s main focus.

Hitler’s Girl is principally the story of Unity Mitford and her contact with Hitler and the Nazi regime over the years of the late 1930s. This Mitford story, like all others, has been heavily documented and recorded over years. Unity became a fanatical supporter of Oswald Mosley after her sister Diana left her husband Bryan Guinness in 1932 and became Mosley’s mistress. At six foot tall and a striking blonde, in her black shirt Unity’s outbursts at communist meetings in support of fascism were so outrageous Mosley was said to have complained she was an embarrassment to his cause.

After attending the Nuremberg Rally in Germany, Unity became besotted with Adolf Hitler and returned to Germany the following year to study languages in Munich close to the Nazi headquarters. Young, as others have also done, charts Unity’s experiences over the next few years as she “stalked” Hitler, to use historian David Pryce-Jones’ word, until he noted her Aryan features and her connection to the British aristocracy, after which he invited her to join him as his guest on numerous occasions, to the point of making his mistress Eva Braun jealous.

There is no doubt that Unity Mitford became close to Adolf Hitler. For those who are new to the history of the Mitfords, Young does bring Unity back to life with a close account of her time in Berlin and Germany over almost six years from 1934.

However, it is in Young’s long bow discussion of Unity Mitford’s return to England that needs further attention. There have been numerous analyses around Unity’s attempt to kill herself in late 1939 with a pistol given her by Hitler and rumours of whether she might have been pregnant on her return to England after recovery in Switzerland. The rumours suggested she was carrying Hitler’s child. Reliable testimony though does not support this claim and what real evidence there is in fact counters it. There is little evidence also that Unity was pregnant on her return to England in 1940.

Unity Mitford spent long months following Hitler about like a sick puppy. She is said to have been autistic – her letters and descriptions of her closeness to Hitler have to be taken with some care. Hitler, as with the Duke of Windsor, was out to make the most of every contact at the top of the British establishment he could. That neither Mitford sister had any influence on the powers at Westminster was not in dispute. But they might pass on information from inside the ruling elite.

In all, Hitler’s Girl is a disappointing read. And a lesson in not allowing momentary theories overtake the facts of history.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.